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Cry, the murderous country

  • 02 August 2018


One of the hazards of pointing out injustice is the characterisation of such action as emotion-ridden. In this framing, physical and psychological pain are unreliable markers of truth. A grief that lingers is taken as manipulative. Anger is received as disproportionate and uncivil.

Such dismissals expose dynamics of power. Human responses to loss and damage are quite straightforward. Whose responses are taken seriously, less so. No one relishes guilt, discomfort or responsibility for hurting others — at least no one decent and reasonable. We prefer to think we are good people, with good intentions.

But countries are made of people, and the sooner we accept the murderous character of this country, the sooner we can overhaul it. The time for insisting 'this is not who we are' will not get us there. It was never who we are. Indifference to human life is what made Australia, and it still permeates its approach to crises.

In a 2009 piece for The Monthly, resurfacing after the recent Mayo by-election, Tony Roberts detailed the ways in which massacres of Aboriginal populations were sanctioned by a series of South Australian governments, in order to expedite pastoral settlement in the Northern Territory. There can be no doubt about intent: in four years, 15 tribes or language groups of some 4000 people lost their land to 14 leaseholders.

Indigenous people are still dying over much less. Ms Dhu died in custody in 2014 from septicaemia-related complications, after being detained for unpaid fines. David Dungay died in custody in 2015 from cardiac arrest brought about by hypoxia, after being restrained for refusing to stop eating biscuits. Both clearly expressed distress before dying — and were met with indifference until it was too late.

As with many things, Indigenous experience provides the lens with which to see things clearly in Australia. First Nations people know the fatal measure of our indifference.

It manifests in many areas. In 2014 Hamid Khazaei (pictured) died from infection, 13 days after presenting at the Manus Island clinic with a lesion on his leg and flu-like symptoms. The coroner's report is unequivocal: the Australian government was solely responsible for the delays and failures that led to Khazaei's death, following septic shock, cardiac arrest and brain damage.


"It is worth sitting with what it means to deliberately erode people's hold on life. It might not be murder. But it can be described as murderous. The effect is the same."


Such deaths lie